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Twilight borders Cross-cultural ties and historical tensions at a tripoint in Central Europe

Source: Meduza

Story by James Jackson for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

In the wake of World War II, Moscow-installed Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe shut their borders tight, restricting emigration and setting up physical barriers, as well. This fortified Iron Curtain remained in place until the revolutionary wave of 1989, which threw open the Eastern Bloc’s European borders and precipitated communism’s collapse. At that point, the 1985 Schengen Agreement had already laid the groundwork for the abolition of internal borders and the free movement of people for which the European Union is so well-known today. That said, the coronavirus pandemic is just the one recent reminder that even the “border-free” Schengen zone can resurrect boundaries if necessary. In a dispatch for The Beet, journalist James Jackson reports on the cross-cultural ties and lingering tensions in the borderless region where Germany, Czechia, and Poland meet. 

This article first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Hanging in an archway of Zittau’s towered yellow town hall, a building that dates back to before Germany’s unification, a shield with red Bohemian lions and crowned black Silesian eagles immediately betrays the border town’s storied, multinational history. A large red cursive letter “Z” represents Zittau itself. And above the shield is a black-and-yellow winged helmet representing the Lusatian League, six cities that banded together in the Middle Ages to defend against errant knights and Slavic tribes. 

Zittau’s town hall
Harald Lange / Ullstein Bild / Getty Images

This small patch of land in Central Europe, which is currently a tripoint between Germany, Czechia, and Poland, has seen empires and states rise and fall, their borders pockmarking the landscape. Where there was once violence and geopolitical machinations, there’s now a peaceful if tense silence. Today, Zittau’s inhabitants are trying to live multi-culturally and across borders after a half-century of division under communist systems that divided nations while claiming to unite them. 

Once a week, 20 children cross the quiet road from one building of their primary school to another. Shouting and giggling, they ask their tall, bearded teacher Kamil Prisching, “Jak se máš?” (“How are you?”) in his native Czech. These children are mostly German and attend one of the schools run by the Schkola network, a group of schools that not only emphasize tolerance and understanding but try to live it by teaching the languages of neighboring countries in this corner of Saxony. The program includes weekly visits to partner schools in Czechia and Poland, making crossing borders as easy as ABCs.

“Someone who stays in their own country is only half a person,” says Kamil, in a deep yet soft voice. Over strong canteen coffee, he tells me that he’s been in Zittau for 23 years, initially visiting for a conference right after qualifying as a German teacher and falling in love with the verdant Zittau Mountains and the town’s intercultural way of life. During his first days here, he met Ute Wunderlich, another transplant from the neighboring state of Brandenburg.

Ute initially came to Zittau for love. Though that didn’t last, she raised a family while teaching at Schkola and later took over as the network’s manager. Why should German children learn Czech, a difficult language spoken by only 10.7 million people worldwide? “We are neighbors and neighbors should understand each other,” Ute says matter-of-factly. “Crossing borders means crossing your own internal borders. You have to deal with a foreign culture, and then you learn to evaluate your own.” 

Aslu / Ullstein Bild / Getty Images

‘We looked at each other very suspiciously’

Growing up in the Eastern Bloc, “there was a lot of rhetoric about ‘socialist brother states,’” Ute says, “but that was just on paper.” It wasn’t easy to cross the borders back then, except for the occasional holiday in the Bohemian mountains that she enjoyed as a child. Her children, on the other hand, have grown up immersed in the Czech language and culture thanks to Schkola. 

While we sit at the back of Kamil’s class as the children learn the lyrics to a Czech pop song, Ute realizes her daughter knew the singer from her semester studying in Prague. Thanks to immersion at Schkola, her two daughters learned Czech from the first grade, while schools to the north offered Polish. “When we first proposed this, both the Czech and Saxon governments warned them that early exposure to foreign languages can be dangerous for children!” Ute notes with disbelief. Now, all six Schkola schools are massively over-enrolled — their message of tolerance popular even in Saxony where the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) currently leads the polls.

On a clear day, Ute can look out her window and see the spaceship-like Ještěd Tower that peers over the Czech city of Liberec. In this city, still called Reichenburg by older Germans, little remains of centuries of German history apart from the gothic town hall and an antique shop standing across from the town square. Wechselstube (“currency exchange”) is still written on the glass door, but the shopkeeper doesn’t speak a word of German. 

Ještěd Tower
Petr Bubenicek /

After World War I, Reichenberg became the capital of the short-lived Province of German Bohemia, where Germans outnumbered Czechs twenty-to-one, and then later of the Nazi-occupied Sudetenland. At the end of World War II, millions of these Germans fled the oncoming Red Army, many of them passing through Zittau. Some stayed. In the war’s aftermath, ethnic Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia and Poland en masse. 

The fact that two of Czechia’s greatest exports, Franz Kafka and Pilsner Urquell, have German roots is a testament to the centuries of shared history between the two nations. Bohemian kings invited Germans to settle in the region in the 13th century, and Bohemia later became part of the Habsburg Empire. Ute had even heard stories of a year-long youth exchange between Czech Bohemia and Germany at the turn of the 20th century.

After the fall of communism, these relationships resumed warily. But though the Iron Curtain had dropped, other barriers remained. “We looked at each other very suspiciously, with a lot of mistrust and even disgust,” recalls Zittau spokesperson Kai Grebasch. The older generations who had been forced to flee to Germany thought wistfully of their abandoned homeland.

There was mistrust on all sides, explains Karolina Kuszyk, a historian from nearby Legnica in southwestern Poland. Her book, In the Houses of Others, looks at the formerly German lands that became part of Poland after World War II. “People were scared that the Germans would come to take their houses back,” Kuszyk says, adding that many of the region’s post-war residents were themselves refugees from parts of Poland ceded to the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference. “Geopolitical decisions were made over peoples’ heads,” she explains. The topic was taboo in the People’s Republic of Poland, where the Communist regime promoted the historically dubious idea that these were reconquered Polish territories. 

According to Kuszyk, however, younger generations feel something in common with their neighbors despite tensions on the national level. “For my generation, it isn’t a taboo anymore. We are very open about the [region’s] German heritage; we even like to learn about it,” she says. “Some young people lead historical walking tours, and others take care of German and Jewish cemeteries. This contradicts the [anti-German] narrative of [Poland’s] current government.”

BearFotos /

‘Taking the danger out of difference’

Developing cross-border economic and personal connections became easier when both the Czech Republic and Poland entered the Schengen zone in late 2007. This was a watershed moment for the Dreiländereck (“tripoint,” in German), and it made Schkola’s exchange days a lot easier too. Borders were mostly forgotten about, that is, until the coronavirus pandemic. 

This hard-won trust made the pandemic and the closing of internal EU borders even more difficult. This is why researcher Benjamin Tallis, who studies security and identity in Central and Eastern Europe, calls them “twilight borders.” “You can still see the lines on the road, or different colored street signs when you cross borders. We can take them away, but they can come back,” he explains.

Nevertheless, Tallis maintains that the Schengen Agreement is “one of the pinnacles of the EU’s achievements.” “It has made an enormous difference in how people encounter each other, making each other more familiar and taking the danger out of difference,” he says. This is especially meaningful for post-communist countries where populations felt trapped; the Schengen zone and the work of locals has allowed them to move freely.

But living near one another isn’t always smooth — in fact, this region has been at the heart of one of Poland’s skirmishes with the EU. In September 2021, the bloc began fining Poland 500,000 euros ($540,000) a day for continuing to operate the Turów open-pit coal mine, which drains groundwater from Czech territory. Feeling ignored by politicians in Saxony’s state capital (despite Warsaw and Prague having settled the dispute in February 2022), little Zittau took the unusual step of suing Poland in court, in a bid to prevent the expansion of the mine’s territory. Though it would be a long route to the European Court of Justice, “we hope it raises awareness and that the Saxon government finally does something,” says Zittau spokesperson Kai Grebasch.

* * *

Being surrounded by fences and armed guards couldn’t be further away from the present, but it was the reality here just a few decades ago. Jaroslav Poláček, the principal of Schkola’s Czech partner school over the border in Hrádek nad Nisou, still remembers the day Czechoslovakia’s strict internal border regime ended; he jumped in a car to visit Poland and Germany that same day. “I thought it was so great, because it had been forbidden. But now it’s just normal,” he laughs. 

Ute, too, has become so accustomed to living across cultures that she hadn’t even noticed that Hrádek’s street signs are written in Czech, Polish, and German. Meanwhile, in the U Burého restaurant, most of the guests are Germans popping over the border on their lunch break to enjoy hearty traditional Czech food and beer.

Just a few hundred meters away, approaching the exact point where the three countries meet, Ute waves me over to the Dreiländereck itself. As well as the three different flags, the Polish and German sides both have Christian crosses: a well-maintained Catholic crucifix and a shabby Protestant one, respectively. And while a tiny stream divides the Czech and Polish sides, the river Neisse separates them both from Germany. The town of Zittau wanted to build a bridge across the river, but it turned out to be legally impossible to draw up a contract between three countries. Despite all their shared history, building bridges isn’t always so easy.

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Story by James Jackson for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart.

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